THE first day of the NFL draft may have been short on all-stars. Manti Te'o didn't go in the first round. Linemen dominated over high-profile quarterbacks. And several players who were practically unknown at the beginning of the season got their chance to cash in very early.
The story behind one of them, Ezekiel Ansah, who was drafted fifth overall, may have been the most surprising. The Ghanaian player, known as "Ziggy," had never even played football four years ago. He recorded only 4.5 sacks last season at BYU — his very first as a starter — roughly a third of the ones Jarvis Jones, who went 17th, recorded this season in a much tougher conference. A walk-on player who tried football only after not making the basketball team (twice), Ansah is a player whose ascendance left sports analysts aghast. "Ezekiel Ansah is probably the No. 1 meteoric rise I've seen in my 35 years of doing this," ESPN's Mel Kiper said.
Ansah was picked fifth by the Detroit Lions after the team's general manager, Martin Mayhew, didn't get the chance to draft any of the top left tackles his team very much needed after last year's 4-12 season. Ansah may have wowed scouts at the Senior Bowl earlier this year, but he's still seen as a big risk. He may have freakish athletic skills and physical gifts, but so far he has little in the way of a reliable track record. Mayhew may have hinted before that he wouldn't make such a risky move, but in the end, writes ESPN's Kevin Seifert, he "didn't panic. He didn't take the easiest and safest way out. He went Dave Kingman on the deal."
And arguably, that's exactly what Mayhew should have done. If there's any place in sports that mirrors the investment axiom "past performance does not indicate future success," it's the NFL draft. Great performances on the collegiate stage do not always foreshadow success in the pros, where the game is far faster, the offensive styles are different, and the size of the players is, by and large, bigger. What made a player shine in the NCAA may have been the skills of his coach, the protection of his teammates or the weaknesses of the opponents he faced.
That's why the NFL draft is often filled with so many surprises. Raw skills and moldable talent can be more attractive than win-loss records and gaudy stats. That was the case Thursday when, in addition to the Detroit Lions grabbing Ansah, the Miami Dolphins traded up to get Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan and the Indianapolis Colts took Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner 24th. "These are not unblockable superstars who are about to revolutionize the game," Bill Barnwell wrote over at Grantland. "Heck, they didn't even dominate the college game, let alone the pros. They're projects with upside."
It takes some chutzpah (and the commitment of coaches to spend time developing talent, of course) to take on such "projects with upside," especially that high up in the draft. There are sure to be plenty of wrong calls and uneven choices. But smart scouts and general managers, just like leaders in any field, know that some of those risks are necessary to build the kinds of teams that they need.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.
More from On Leadership: